National Geographic : 1952 Jul
North Star Cruises Alaska's Wild West although cut off from all medical aid, they expected to welcome their first child. Late in the evening of October 5 we left King Island, reaching Little Diomede Island early the next morning.* Lying in my bunk, I felt the heavy shaking as the North Star went astern, then heard a short whistle blast and the muffled rumble as the ship disgorged her anchor and chain. In the sudden silence that followed, crewmen's shouts echoed faintly. I hurried on deck. Siberian Big Diomede could be plainly seen across the 2 2-mile wide strait through which runs the U. S. U. S. S. R. boundary along the International Date Line. The day was Friday, but a few hundred yards to the west, in Soviet territory, it was Saturday. Slingloads of Eskimos were dropping over the ship's side into waiting umiaks. I piled into one which was already packed with chat tering natives. We cast off, but the motor wouldn't start and a cold north wind began to blow the umiak through the Iron Curtain from Friday into Saturday. Fortunately, just as we reached Russian waters, we got the out board started. As we landed in rough breakers on Little Diomede, all the Eskimos worked with enthu siasm-except one. This individual had been "outside" to Texas and California where he had acquired some very un-Eskimo ideas. "I won't help with personal baggage," he smirked. "I wait for freight. Money paid, haul freight." Seal-oil Lamps with Moss Wicks The steep village paths were paved with flagstones. Ugly, snarling, wolfish-looking dogs disputed every trail. An Eskimo invited me to visit his under ground barabara home, and I crawled after my host through a two-foot-square hole. It led into a snug room heated by two seal-oil stone lamps burning brightly from moss wicks. Walrus gut, stretched thin, covered an over head skylight 14 inches square. I had shivered in too many frame houses in the north not to appreciate this cozy Eskimo home. I was eager to meet some of the natives held captive by the Russians on Big Diomede in 1948. Seventeen Eskimos from Little Dio mede had sailed over to Big Diomede to visit relatives and friends and trade as they had done since time immemorial. Russian officials met the group and kept them captive in a small, cold, poorly venti lated room for 50 days. Fed twice daily on soggy bread and fish soup, each Eskimo lost 15 to 20 pounds. Some were forced to stand all day answering questions asked by relays of interrogators. I spoke to one of five old women in the party. "After many days they let us go," she said, "and we came home weak and sick and very tired. We did not like visit and never want go back again." Last summer the natives observed a Russian supply ship visiting Big Diomede. They said the Russians kept lookouts on the island in summer and on the ice in winter. As the King and Diomede islanders have not been lured elsewhere by steady employ ment, they have developed into fine artists as ivory carvers (page 68). The walrus, source of their ivory, has been reduced in numbers almost everywhere in the Arctic, but here, luckily enough, it is still plentiful. The total income from Alaskan native arts and crafts was only $39,000 annually before the war; now it amounts to about $150,000 every year. This increase is due largely to the efforts of the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts division of the Alaska Native Service. Siberian Eskimos Come No More From Little Diomede we chugged southwest to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. The great white mountains of Siberia loomed in wintry desolation 40 miles to the north. Bound shoreward in a whaleboat, I noticed an Eskimo climbing over the cargo toward me. HeaskedmeifIwasamemberoftheNa tional Geographic Society; he wanted to be recommended for membership. While flying spray beat a tattoo on the sealskin he held over me, I wrote down Simon Tatoowi as a nominee for membership in The Society. Most of Gambell's population was on the beach watching the freight being landed (opposite page). I asked an Eskimo if he knew my friend Otto Geist, who had spent three years on St. Lawrence Island as arche ologist for the University of Alaska. "Otto, he live like us and eat our food," the Eskimo said with a note of pride. I asked another native the same question. "Otto live with my family for two years," came the answer. "He hunt with us and eat walrus just like native." Plainly, Otto had learned how to make friends and influence the Eskimos. John Apangalook, secretary of the local council, told me about contacts with Siberia. "Before the war we were friendly. Both peoples visited back and forth many times. Last time Siberians come was 1947, when they stay five days and help Gambell people cele brate Fourth of July. "We had racing, jumping, and wrestling contests. Gambell people win all the time. * See "Alaska's Russian Frontier: Little Diomede," 18 photographs by Audrey and Frank Morgan, NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1951.